Five picture book author-illustrators regaled an eager BEA audience last Friday with quirky and often touching stories during an animated and often funny panel. The “Picture Book Powerhouses” on the uptown stage were Oliver Jeffers, Loren Long, John Bemelmans Marciano, Judy Schachner, and Jan Brett. Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers, served as moderator. By way of introduction, Hornik asked each of the panelists to share a favorite moment from his or her most recent picture book.

There was no question for Long, whose An Otis Christmas, the fourth in his series about a soulful red tractor, will be published by Philomel in October. During a snowstorm on the farm, a horse about to give birth is in urgent need of a veterinarian. At a moment when “all hope is lost,” Long describes “a hush that comes over the barn” as the desperate farmer prays for a Christmas miracle. Readers will know that Otis is making his way through the blinding snow to deliver that miracle.

Skippyjon Jones author Schachner’s forthcoming Bits & Pieces (Dial, Nov.) is about Tink, an adventurous kitty with some bad eating habits and a brain “the size of a frozen pea.” The author’s favorite moment occurs when two siblings peer through Tink’s ears: “And do you know what they saw? They saw each other!” Brett, who visited St. Petersburg when researching costumes and architecture for her Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella (Putnam, Nov.), cited a gatefold spread of chickens dressed in elaborate ball gowns; though she owns her own brood, “I don’t put clothes on them,” she insisted.

Jeffers’s favorite illustration in The Day the Crayons Quit is a tongue-in-cheek picture that demonstrates the reason that the white crayon’s talents are so often overlooked. The image is of “a white cat in the snow with its eyes closed.” Jeffers went on to joke that “it’s the only piece of published art that I’ve finished in under 30 seconds.” Marciano’s favorite moment in Madeline and the Old House in Paris (Viking, Oct.) involves a ghost astronomer who has waited for 300 years for the return of a comet. Marciano said he especially loved creating the array of “arcane 18th century astronomical tools” that fill the astronomer’s attic.

After this brief discussion, Hornik then asked the artist to provide the audience with a glimpse into the studios where they create it. Brett emphasized that hers is a moveable feast: wherever she goes, she brings her paints. Even on the way to BEA, she was painting in the car (her husband drove). A seasoned traveler, Brett said that when she goes to the airport, airline personnel routinely ask her how her latest book is coming along. Though Jeffers now shares a cheerful Brooklyn studio space with several other picture book artists, he did not always work under such comfortable conditions, once living in a dark, leaky New York carriage house, complete with rats and a makeshift wood-burning stove It would get so cold during the night that Jeffers and his roommates considered “employing one of the less aggressive homeless men” in the neighborhood to keep the fire going. He was joking –at least the audience was fairly certain that he was..

Loren Long’s first studios were also less-than-stellar. In years past, he did the majority of his work in basements that allowed in no natural light; in fact, he was so accustomed to the subterranean life that “I wondered if I could draw above ground.” Now he’s got a big studio with lots of windows and, luckily, it’s working out just fine. “I know why you were kept in the basement,” teased Long’s longtime friend, Schachner, who shares her studio space with several cats that enjoy reclining on what she refers to as their “tanning bed.” Schachner often catches the cats in the act of trying to eat her artwork.

From Studio to Bookstore Shelves

It’s an experience that authors and illustrators are familiar with: after long hours spent bringing their stories and images to life, the moment arrives when it’s time to release them into the world and into readers’ hands. Hornik asked the panelists to reflect on interactions they’ve had with fans. Brett shared the promise she once made at a signing. A woman told Brett that her 15-year-old son Steven “will probably never learn to read,” and expressed her frustration that there aren’t more books available to captivate him. Brett told her that she would write one for him. The Easter Egg (Putnam, 2010), about a young rabbit who doubts himself when it comes to painting a beautiful egg for the Easter Rabbit, was written for Steven.

A moving experience for Marciano took place when he was showing his work at a gallery in 1989. A mother whose child had passed away was particularly affected by one of Marciano’s drawings of an angel; though she could not afford to purchase the original, he was able to supply her with a print. That interaction reminded him of one of the reasons why he loves picture books – because they are works of art that are readily available for anyone to enjoy.

In retrospect, at least, Schachner can see the funny side of a sparsely attended reading she did for the Skippyjon Jones series at a San Antonio bookstore, attended only by an old woman, her son, and a Chihuahua. The panel concluded with a colorful anecdote from Jeffers – not about a book signing, but about an unusual day he experienced while working at a bookstore in Belfast. It was a long story, but suffice to say it involved a stray dog, five bodyguards, two patrolmen, five heavily armed squad officers, and a highly controversial politician looking for a book about the Pope. The rollicking tale, come to think of it, sounds as though it might make a great picture book.